Real estate and house prices make for challenging times. For home owners with growing families or changing circumstances who want to upsize their house, the prospect of selling up and then purchasing a bigger property isn’t exactly appealing, particularly noting the costs associated with stamp duty and the inconveniences of moving.
Accordingly, more and more home owners are looking to renovate and expand their existing residence. It might be a new 1st Floor addition to their single storey house, or it might be an extension or add-on to the rear of the existing house. Or, for the braver souls with a bigger budget, you might consider knocking down the existing property and building an all-new home from the ground up.
If you’re in this boat and you’re about to embark on the process, here are eight helpful and friendly pointers – all through the eyes of a structural engineer – to assist and guide you through the task…
Step 1 – Research what your local Council will let you do.
Before you get too emotionally attached to any notions with your Taj Mahal, you should first of all ensure that what you’ve got in mind complies with your local authority’s control plan (often known as the Development Control Plan or “DCP”). The DCP stipulates what can and can’t be done in your area, so make sure from the get-go that your vision and ideas won’t fall foul of basic planning laws. You should also check if your property is subject to any locale-specific controls or limitations. For example, your house may be in a Heritage Conservation Area and thus there may be limitations on what you can do with the external facades or the appearance of the house. Make a quick visit to council and have a chat with a planning officer.
For readers in NSW, something to consider early on in the piece is whether you’ll need to lodge a Development Application (DA), or whether you can achieve your project with a Complying Development Certificate (CDC). A CDC will give you a much smoother and faster ride through the approval process, but there may be more restrictive limitations imposed on your permissible floor area, maximum roof heights, and setbacks from the boundaries.
If you’re building a new project home with a project builder, then you can jump to Step 5. Otherwise, if you’re heading down the more standard and regular path, then you’ll need to…
Step 2 – Engage an architect
This is arguably the most crucial and important part of the process. Your architect is your vehicle to success and is the linchpin of the project. It’s too simplistic (and fundamentally flawed) to think that an architect is just there to draw up your plans. This possibly isn’t the forum to go into the nitty-gritty of how, when, and where architects can help you, but for the purposes of this article, your architect can:
– Listen to your project brief and conceive a bespoke architectural layout and design for you;
– Navigate through the complexities of the DCP and all of the construction/building laws and statutes that apply to your area (e.g. the NCC and BASIX, etc);
– Provide you with a house design that meets your needs and works to your budget;
– Prepare and lodge the plans with council and obtain all the necessary approvals to commence the project;
– Act as your project manager and co-ordinate all your other consultants (such as the Structural Engineer and the Stormwater Engineer);
– Call for tenders; appoint a builder; and manage the construction process and contract.
The above is just a very small list of all the things your architect can do, but they’re arguably the most important and – if you’re honest with yourself – they’re probably the items you’ll need the most assistance with.
There is a tendency amongst some home owners to try and cut costs and take on some of these tasks themselves. Our experience and advice is that this is often false economy and can lead to delays with the project, cost over-runs, and many difficulties during construction that could have been avoided. Remember – experienced architects will have a career-full CV of challenges, designs, details, and solutions that they’ve resolved and overcome, and you’re paying them for this experience and background – not just their creative flair. If this is your first ever building project, then don’t take on tasks like these yourself, when an experienced architect has done it many, many times over.
Step 3 – Research everything and choose wisely
One of the most harrowing and stressful aspects to any house project is the number of decisions and selections you’ll have to make. For almost every item in the house (construction type, materials, tiles, claddings, paint colours, appliances, hardware, bathroom fittings, furniture, joinery, etc) you will be confronted with competing products, different brands, and an overwhelming choice of colours and styles. Some choices will be easy; others will keep you awake at night. The key is to do as much research as you can to assist you in your selections. You’ll also need to accept that some choices might be budget driven – that is, you might be obliged to choose the cheaper option because you can’t afford the more expensive one.
In undertaking your research, ask questions about each product or selection you’re choosing. How long is the warranty? Are spares or replacements easily obtainable? Does the product have a long, reliable history of use in Australia? Is it a look or fashion that might date quickly? Is it a product line that is new or is it towards the end of its run? Depending on the size and complexity of your project, it might be a year or two between when you first choose something and when it is actually required to be ordered and installed on site…and it’s surprising (and frustrating) to observe how many products change or are no longer available by the time your building site is ready for it. This is particularly the case with floor tiles and other finishing/cladding products (e.g. availability of certain colours) where catalogues are regularly refreshed and updated.
Looking at one of the more engineering-related aspects to your construction, a decision you’ll need to make early on is the form of construction and choice of materials. Will the outside walls of your house be clad timber frame? Or brick veneer? Or double-skin cavity brick? Or off-form concrete? Each one of these options has its own set of pros and cons, with significant implications for cost and other flow-on impacts such as thermal and acoustic insulation. You’ll also need to consider whether your floors are lightweight (e.g. timber joists) or concrete slabs. For more info and thoughts on this choice, there’s further reading on our blog piece here.
Try and learn as much as you can about each item you’re choosing and make informed choices. And, again, listen to your architect and other consultants and don’t be scared to follow their recommendations – remember, it’s what they do for a living and you’re paying for their expertise.
Step 4 – Appoint your consultants
Okay, there’s admittedly some self-interest here but – for most projects – you’re going to need an engineer or two. Almost all domestic residential projects will require a Structural Engineer; many will also require a Stormwater or Hydraulic Engineer, and some will need a Geotechnical Engineer.
Your architect or project manager will probably go out to two or more consultants to obtain quotes for each engineering discipline. And this is where things get tricky. One of the biggest traps (and injustices) in this industry is that many people think structural engineering is a standardised commodity. That is, there is a misconception that all engineers are equal and they all provide exactly the same service, always providing the same solutions and outcomes, regardless of their individual experience or the fees they charge. Nothing could be further from the truth! Like many other aspects of the building game, you get what you pay for, and simply going with the cheapest quote may not save you in the long run. In fact, you may end up spending more on the project overall! Plenty of engineers can charge a cheap fee, but they might subsequently deliver a more expensive design because their fee (or experience) didn’t allow them enough time to do more thorough analyses and refine their designs. This can result in thicker concrete slabs, heavier reinforcement, and deeper/thicker beams than were actually necessary – all adding significant cost to your project. There’s no point saving $5,000 on fees by choosing a cheaper engineer if their design costs you $100,000 more to build! We’ve written a separate article that explores and explains all this in detail, so be sure to check out our piece, “Comparing engineering fee quotes – what’s really going on.”
Step 5 – Choose, appoint, and work with your builder
The builder is not your employee – they’re your partner. And, like any partnership, you’ll want to invest in the relationship so it can be as successful as possible. So be sure to do all the research you can before choosing which builder to appoint. As tempting as it is, don’t just blindly accept the cheapest quote, but do your due diligence. Remember the old saying: The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.
There’s more to judging a builder than their pics on Instagram or Pinterest. Get references and testimonials from previous clients; speak to other consultants (e.g. architects/engineers) who’ve worked with the builder previously, and make sure the builder has a good track record with projects similar to what you’re about to embark on. If your project has an estimated cost of $1.5M and your prospective builder hasn’t undertaken any projects over $500,000, then this might be a red flag. Similarly, if you need your project finished in six months and your prospective builder has never completed a project in less than a year, then this might also be a warning.
There are some horror stories about builders and contractors in the domestic construction scene, but it’s a bit like hotel or restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor – people with bad experiences make a lot more noise than those who enjoyed a satisfactory experience and just quietly got on with enjoying their new house. If we can give you one piece of advice which you should take onboard during the construction process and in your dealings with your builder: Appreciate that very few individuals turn up to their workplace planning or intending to do a bad job. Builders take pride in their work, and if there’s something you’re not happy with, then approach the subject with due diplomacy and respect. And put yourself in the builder’s shoes: Imagine if some layperson completely unfamiliar with your industry, your training, your job, and your skillset came to your workplace at the end of each day and started critiquing your work! This is the unfortunate reality that builders have to endure, so consideration, empathy and clear/open communication will be the key foundations to a successful building relationship.
Step 6 – Be patient
The sad and frustrating reality for all home owners is that building projects never progress as fast as you think they should. The approvals process through council and other authorities always drags longer than it should; builders and consultants take too long to come back to you with quotes or take too long to get underway; wet weather spoils the party and slows things down; materials and trades get delayed for seemingly stupid reasons; and your contractors take longer to finish than they said they would. Unfortunately, this is all normal and par for the course, so build contingency into your plans and expectations, and don’t burst a blood vessel or let it get the better of you.
Step 7 – Stay the course and understand that changes = costs
Once your project is underway, it’s not uncommon to second-guess your earlier decisions. Depending on the process that occurred prior to building work actually commencing, six months to two years may have elapsed since you made some of your important planning and product choices. With time comes a tendency to change your mind. You may have locked in your plans six months ago, only to see a great feature on Grand Designs last week that you’d now like to adopt for your project! It’s tempting, for example, to suddenly decide to change your bathroom layout, re-locate a doorway, move a wall, or change your living room floor from carpet to tiles.
Ultimately, it’s your house and it’s entirely your call and prerogative. It’s all a hideously expensive undertaking, so it’s vital that you’re happy with the final product. But you’ll need to appreciate that making changes during the construction phase can add significant costs. Some of these are direct costs (e.g. you might wish to upgrade to a more expensive face brick for your façade), whilst others might be indirect, such as causing extensions of time or delays on site. If your builder has to start going backwards to de-construct something already built, or has to stop work on site because the new windows you’ve suddenly decided to switch to have a long lead time, then the holding costs on site can blow out very quickly. It’s not just labour and administration, but also increased hire costs for things like scaffolding, plant and equipment, site sheds, fencing, and so forth. Architects and engineers will also likely charge variation costs if they have to re-design something they signed off on previously, and materials/builder’s margins will attract higher costs and percentages during construction than they would have when everyone was bidding in a competitive tender. And, if you’re renting somewhere whilst the project is being built, you’ve also extended your rental expenses if the project is delayed due to changes.
None of these are reasons not to make changes or perceived improvements, but just be aware that you’ll likely get a bigger bill than you were expecting. Again, it highlights the importance of Step 3 – do your research and contemplate all the factors and permutations back in the planning stages, so that you make your decisions and selections with confidence and without cost penalty.
Step 8 – Celebrate
The momentous day will finally come when you’re handed the keys and can take full possession of your house again. All the pain and frustrations of the project will instantly melt away and be forgotten. It’s a massive milestone, not to mention an enormous relief, so be sure to celebrate. Crack the bubbly, have your friends around for the housewarming party, invite your builder and consultants, and enjoy the occasion. Oh, and make a list of everything you’d do differently next time and store it some place safe to look at in 15 years’ time when you decide it’s time to renovate again!
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And, of course, if you need a structural engineer somewhere along the way…you know who to call! 😉